It was hard to find any bad news at the AATA board meeting held Wednesday night – unless it was the misfortune of board chair, David Nacht, being forced to call time on Tom Partridge’s public speaking turn just as Partridge was favorably comparing Nacht’s education and intellect to that of Governor Granholm’s. Even though with each agenda item, Nacht probed for signs of trouble, he was met time and again with positive reports: on ridership, on the fiscal year 2009 operating budget, on the fuel budget, and on his fellow board members’ willingness to take a small step towards helping make WALLY (Washtenaw and Livingston Line) a reality.
Consideration of WALLY was added to the agenda in response to letters sent by the mayor of Ann Arbor, John Hieftje, and chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners, Jeff Irwin, to the AATA board, asking that the AATA take a “leadership role” in the project, which envisions commuter rail service from Howell down to Ann Arbor. Nacht put the letters from the city and the county in the context of a request from U.S. Congressman John Dingell, who in a recent meeting with key players stressed the need to establish a legal authority, so that he could find federal money to help fund it.
“How do you guys feel about it?” asked Nacht, who himself seemed enthusiastic, going as far as to sketch out one possible approach, which would have entailed hiring someone charged with the responsibility of creating the legal authority: “I think the community has made pretty clear they want us to move quickly.” However, Jesse Bernstein and Rich Robben wanted to ease off the gas a bit, with Bernstein asking how this approach would fit in with the possibility of changing the corporate structure of the AATA itself. One possibility floated was that AATA could be a member, perhaps with multiple seats, of a larger transit authority.
At the end of the short discussion, no decision to hire someone was made, but a resolution was passed directing the AATA’s planning committee to recommend options for presentation at next board meeting on Oct. 15.
FY 2009 Budget
Nacht declared the content of the budget “worthy of a press release” because it reflected costs of $103.29 per service hour, compared to the previous budget, which was analyzed at $108 per service hour. As board member Sue McCormick explained during the meeting, and as AATA controller Phil Webb clarified for The Chronicle afterwards, the $108 figure was somewhat high, due to the way that various costs were allocated to different departments within the AATA. Still, said Webb, from a practical point of view, adjusting for differences in allocations put the previous number around $105-106 per service hour.
Nacht acknowledged board member Ted Annis’ efforts in pushing the AATA to become more efficient without reducing services, which had resulted in a “piece of paper” that achieves that goal. About the piece of paper (the budget passed at the meeting), Nacht said, “That, by golly, is the first step!”
In light of soaring oil prices, it would not have been surprising if Webb had reported massive budget overages in the area of fuel. The AATA is actually completely within its fuel budget for the year. This has been achieved through the purchase oil futures contracts. When the AATA pays an increase from, say, $2 a gallon to $3 a gallon for fuel, it simply unwinds a futures contract, which has increased in value as well.
A contract is 1,000 barrels of fuel. At 42 gallons per barrel, a single contract covers the better part of the 55,000 gallons used by the AATA each month. So each month the AATA buys and sells a futures contract, and pays the spot market rate for the amount not covered by the contract. Webb said this is a strategy used by the transit authority in St. Paul-Minneapolis as well.
Effect of Route Adjustments
The AATA has made route adjustments that have eliminated some routes and increased service on other routes. By the end of September ’08 it should be possible to start evaluating whether those changes have had a positive effect on ridership and on-time performance. By January ’09 the board will get a report on the success of those changes.
The previous one-day record for ridership on the AATA was 27,123 set on Nov. 13, 2007. But on seven of the first 10 days of September 2008, that total has been exceeded. The new one-day record stands at 28,503, which was set Sept. 15. Increased ridership has, however, affected on-time performance with increased loading and unloading times.
As The Chronicle previously reported in its summary of the most recent DDA board meeting, the AATA is partnering with UM and the DDA to fund a Phase I study of alternatives for a north-east connector to downtown Ann Arbor. The three submissions in response to the RFP were all over the budget of $250,000. When the DDA met, the three had been winnowed down to two. It was reported at this AATA board meeting that one of the submissions had been selected, and that negotiations on budget would now commence. The outcome of those negotiations is to be reported at the Oct. 15 AATA board meeting.
What Phase I is supposed to deliver is a proposal for an actual product – whether it’s light rail, rapid bus transit, or something else, which could be considered by the board and the public.
AATA and UM are preparing to start negotiations on new contracts for MRide, the free bus service that UM affiliates enjoy. Negotiation teams are being named on both sides.
Hiring of Executive Director
RFP was published on Sept. 2 with proposals from consulting firms due back on Sept. 26. A short-list is hoped for by Oct. 8. The actual hire of the position is expected by Feb. 1, 2009.
Election of AATA Board Officers
The nominating committee provided an uncontested slate of new officers for the board: chair, David Nacht; treasurer, Paul Ajegba; secretary, Charles Griffith. Nacht remarked on the uncontested slate by quipping, “Thank you, comrade!”
The AATA, through its training program, can take a person “off the street” with no prior commercial driving experience, and turn them in to a bus driver.
Present: David Nacht (chair), Paul Ajegba (acting secretary), Jesse Bernstein, Charles Griffith, Sue McCormick, Rich Robben
Next meeting: Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave. Topics to monitor: north-east connector, how to proceed with WALLY.